Le Monde Diplomatique’s Mona Chollet reviews the purportedly feminist protest group called the Femen, finding little evidence of feminism and a budding affinity with France’s anti-Muslim right. Amina Tyler, Alia el Mahdi and other young Femen of the Arab Spring would do well to have a second look at their Ukrainian mentors.
“Covering women’s bodies seems to give Muslims a sense of virility, while Westerners derive their own from uncovering them”, writes Moroccan essayist Fatema Mernissi in Scheherazade Goes West. The French media’s excitement over figures like the Ukranian ’Femen’ or Alia el Mahdi, the Egyptian student who in 2011 posted naked pictures of herself on her blog, once again underlines the truth of Mernissi’s observation. To commemorate International Women’s Day, France 2 aired a documentary on March 5 about the Ukrainian women’s group, which has been based in France for more than a year now.
So much for the thousands of women who have the poor taste to fight for their rights while fully clothed, or to put on a show that does not conform with the dominant standards of youth, slimness, beauty and bodily firmness. “Feminism is women on the march in the streets of Cairo, not the Femen,” raged France Inter’s Egypt correspondent Vanessa Descouraux on Twitter, on February 6. “But we never see documentaries about those women on television!” Feminist organisations in France these days are more likely to be asked their opinion of the Ukrainian women’s group than about their own undertakings.
If you show your boobs, I’ll come back with the photographer
Women: do you want to make yourselves heard? There is only one solution: take off your clothes! In October, 2012 in Germany, a group of refugees camped out in front of Brandenburg Gate in Berlin to protest their living conditions were having great difficulty attracting the attention of the media. At one point, an angry young woman protestor asked a journalist from Bild: “Do you want me to get naked?”
’Yes’, said the journalist, promising to come back with a photographer. Word spread among the other journalists, and voila, there was a mob of cameras around the women protesting in support of the refugees. The women did not in the end take off their clothes, but they didn’t miss the opportunity to denounce the sensationalism of the media.
The Femen on the other hand were more pragmatic. At their first demonstrations, in Ukraine in 2008, they had written their slogans on their backs, but photographers were only interested in their breasts. So, they changed the location of their slogans. Inna Shevchenko, importer of the Femen brand to France, has no regrets about how things evolved: “We know what the media need — sex, scandals and fighting — and that’s what we give them”, Shevchenko told Rue89 last December. “To be in the newspapers is to exist at all.”Really? […]
The permanent reduction of women to their bodies and their sexuality, the negation of their intellectual abilities, the social invisibility of women who cannot please the male gaze: these are keystones of the patriarchal system. It is rather stupefying that a purportedly feminist ’movement’ — there are no more than twenty Femen in France — cannot see this. “We live under male domination,” Inna Shevchenko told The Guardian, “and nudity is the only way to provoke them, to get their attention.” So, a feminism that bends to male domination: well, it had to be invented.
Shevchenko not only accepts this order of things, she approves of it: “Classic feminism is a sick old woman, it does not work anymore. It is stuck in the world of conferences and books.” She is right: death to sick old women, they are not even pleasing to look at! And books? They are full of words that cause headaches.
In his excellent book on the use of bodies in politics, Claude Guillon said of Shevchenko’s sick old woman: “Even the most charitable of readers would say that Shevchenko’s statement expresses the presumption and the cruelty of youth. But we should also add: the greatness of its imbecility! The image of feminists as old ladies, cut off from the rest of the world — and if Inna read books she might have known this — is an abiding anti-feminist cliche. A pity to see it taken up by an activist who pretends to be renewing feminism.” More recently, the group’s members in France resigned themselves to publishing a book, of interviews. “In France, you have to publish something in order to be taken seriously,” sighs one of the Femen in an interview in Liberation. Oh, the misery.
To Rue89, Shevchenko summarised the views of young French women who seek to join the Femen: “They tell me: the existing French feminist movements aren’t for young women-they’re for intellectual women who look like men, who negate sexuality, the fact that a woman can be feminine.” In this regard, we have to say that the Femen indisputably represent progress. Take an ancestor like Simone de Beauvoir: we had to wait for her hundredth anniversary to finally see her naked, rather a long anticipation. In the end, the world’s patience was rewarded when, with relish, Le Nouvel Observateur (January 3, 2008) published on its cover a picture of the author of The Second Sex naked, in her bathroom, back to the camera.
The Femen by contrast make it easy for us: theirs is a fast-food feminism (’femen’, by the way, means ’thigh’ in Latin, though that has nothing to do with their choice of name, which was because “it had a nice ring to it”). So let us not be prudes then; we are feminists, sure, but we have bodies, sensuality, sexual lives. I am afraid however that those who dream of ogling Jean-Paul Sartre’s tight little buttocks still have a long wait ahead of them. What is Le Nouvel Observateur waiting for? Don’t great intellectuals too have bodies, sensuality, a sexual life? Why not let us benefit from it? Why aren’t great [male] intellectuals too a public good that we can display and commercialise without asking their permission?
The Femen at first attracted a good deal of sympathy, after they were assaulted by Civitas Catholic extremists during a pro gay marriage demonstration in November 2012. But since then they have gradually been distanced or disavowed by members of the women’s movement like the feminist group Les Tumultueuses or the actress-director Ovidie. Criticised for accepting a vision of the woman’s body shaped by the advertising industry, their defense was to distribute pictures of members who do not look like fashion models. Of course we will never see those pictures on cover of Les Inrockuptibles though; the dishrag breasts would not conform to the “pop feminism” that such magazines prefer. Nor on cover of Obsessions, the fashion supplement of Le Nouvel Observateur, where the Femen were posed in September. […]
Has feminism really become so commonplace as to be on the front pages of all the newspapers, be the subject of numerous documentaries promoted by the press? You would have to be naive to believe that. The interest in the Femen is of course perfectly compatible with the most grotesque anti-feminism. On March 7, Liberation devoted two full pages to the Femen but this did not prevent it from publishing on the day following —on International Women’s Day in fact— a particularly memorable issue: under the headline, “Sex for All!” a front page article on “sexual surrogates” for the disabled. Illustrating the text was a photograph of a disabled man in bed with a “surrogate” (blonde, smiling, an incarnation of the sweetness and dedication which are a woman’s true vocation). Not the inverse: we said “sex for all (men)” not “for all (women)”. […]
A pseudo-feminism that generates a suspicious amount of general excitement: in France this brings to mind the media bubble that inflated around Ni Putes Ni Soumises, a group which was feted by the press as long as it continued to feed the general stigmatisation of Islam. And in fact two former members of Ni Putes Ni Soumises, Loubna Meliane (now an assistant to parliamentary deputy Malek Boutih) and Safia Lebdi, were among the first to publicly rally around the Femen; though they later distanced themselves from the Ukrainians. The French arm of the Femen made their headquarters in la Goutte d’Or, a heavily Muslim neighborhood of Paris. There they proclaimed their presence with a blue, white and red poster [of young, naked women] that curiously recalled the public pork and wine picnic-provocations organised in exactly the same place by far-right extremists in 2010.
‘Arab mentality’ in Ukraine
Given the overwhelming weight of the Orthodox Church in public life in Ukraine, the Femen’s public and radical anti-clerical position is understandable. But when it comes to Islam, spokespeople for the group seem to cross a line. A founding member, Anna Hutsol, certainly flirted with racism when she deplored a Ukrainian society incapable of “eradicating its Arab mentality toward women.”
In March 2012, with the slogan “better naked than in a burqa”, Femen France organised an “anti-burqa operation” in front of the Eiffel Tower. Members of the group also shouted “nudity is liberty” and “France, get naked!” Thus they perpetuate a premise that is very deeply rooted in Western culture according to which salvation can only be attained through maximum exposure, denying the violence that this can sometimes imply.
Many feminists objected that instead of affirming the superiority of nudity, it might be better to defend women’s freedom to dress the way they want. But the Femen have no doubts that they are right. “We are not going to adapt our discourse to all ten countries where our group is now present: our message is universal”, said Shevchenko in an interview in 20 Minutes. This mixture of intellectual laziness and arrogance, this pretension to dictate the correct attitude to women from every disparate part of the world, has been met with a certain coldness. Researcher Sara Salem reproached Egyptian student Alia el Mahdi for her alliance with the Femen. “The fact that she posted naked pictures of herself on her blog could be perceived as a way of defying a patriarchal society, but the fact that she collaborates with a group that can be defined as colonialist is problematic”, Salem writes. But why question oneself when all you need to get maximum audience is show off your breasts?
This article originally appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique.